If nine out of ten Americans believe that marijuana should be legal for adults—and according to a Pew Research poll conducted in April, they do—this begs an obvious question: Why hasn’t Congress passed federal marijuana legalization?
The country’s closest brush with national cannabis reform was last December, when the House of Representatives for the first time approved a legalization bill with a floor vote. As expected, the milestone was symbolic: The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement Act (or MORE Act) did not receive a hearing in then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Senate. (The fact that its sponsor was then-Senator Kamala Harris (D-California), the vice-president elect, probably didn’t help.)
With Democrats in charge of both houses of Congress and the White House—and with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer an avowed legalization supporter, will things be any different, or better? On Friday, House Democrats on Friday reintroduced the MORE Act, which would remove cannabis from the federal Controlled Substances Act, wipe certain marijuana-related offenses from individuals’ criminal records, and steer money towards individuals and communities hurt by the War on Drugs.
But this time around, there are competing visions for how to legalize cannabis on Capitol Hill—including one business-friendly legalization bill sponsored by House Republicans. If a split Senate balks at a progressive vision for marijuana legalization, and if President Joe Biden is uncomfortable with progressive politics generally, could a moderate version pushed by Republicans—and supported by the marijuana industry—be an acceptable compromise?
One competitor for the MORE Act is what’s called the “Common Sense Cannabis Reform For Veterans, Small Businesses, and Medical Professionals Act.” Sponsored by Ohio Rep. Dave Joyce and Alaska Rep. Don Young—both Republicans—the bill does some of what the MORE Act would do, with one very critical difference: it omits the reinvestment and opportunity elements.
Instead, the bill legalizes interstate cannabis commerce, encourages medical cannabis research, and creates access for military veterans. Regulations for a nationwide marijuana industry would be the responsibility of the Food and Drug Administration and the Treasury Department, which would have to issue federal direction within one year of passage.
For all these reasons, pro-cannabis business lobbies in Washington warmly received the Republican-led legalization effort.
There are more differences between the two bills, on important points like taxation and research as well as social-justice reform. But who cares what’s in a bill if it never becomes a law?
If the MORE Act’s sponsors want to do anything beyond making another superficial statement, they’ll need help from Republicans—and lots of it. Passing the MORE Act in the Senate, where arcane rules require at least 60 votes in order to pass most substantive legislation, will require support from ten Senate Republicans as well as every Democrat. And given that several Senate Democrats have already voiced opposition to legalization, barring some significant shift in Capitol Hill dynamics, this seems unlikely.
This gives Joyce and Young’s Republican legalization proposal some new life. This would be true even if President Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s de-facto leader, hadn’t registered profound reluctance to substantive shifts in marijuana policy. (According to an April press briefing from White House press secretary Jen Psaki, Biden wants to move cannabis to Schedule II, a half-step that would wreck the cannabis industry as it’s presently organized.)
The current MORE Act is even more progressive than the version passed by Congress last winter. That could be a real liability among Republicans in both houses of Congress. Only five Republicans signed onto the MORE Act in December—and 168 members of the House voted against it. In other words, if the MORE Act had the same support in the Senate as it did in the House, the MORE Act would fail.
It may be some months before either bill gets a hearing. If leery senators can’t get behind the MORE Act for whatever reason—it’s too woke, it’s too Democratic—an alternative that accomplishes many of the same goals may become an attractive compromise, especially if it actually stands a chance at passing. After all, that’s what the people want.